Best of Week 9: Can PSU pull off another upset?

Another light, yet exciting week ahead, with four teams off–Indiana, Michigan, Purdue and Wisconsin. Still, this Saturday has a marquee, prime-time game to hang its hat on with Penn State playing at Ohio State.

The loser of the Northwestern at Iowa game may be hard-pressed to become bowl-eligible. Nebraska is locked and loaded for a big second half of the season, which begins at Minnesota. NU must win if it wants to win the Legends, right?

How lopsided has the Nebraska-Minnesota series been? Check it out: Nebraska has beaten the Golden Gophers 16 times in a row. The last Gophers’ win? A 26-14 decision in 1960.

Here’s a look at the Best of Week Nine.

[ MORE: Get Tom Dienhart’s Week 9 Big Ten previews ]

BEST GAME: Penn State at Ohio State. The Nittany Lions can’t go to the postseason, so it lives to play games like this. Penn State dumped Michigan the last time out, taking a 43-40 decision in four overtimes. It was the Wolverines’ first defeat of 2013. PSU will try to end Ohio State’s 19-game winning streak and national title hopes. The Buckeyes have had Penn State’s number in recent years, winning eight of the last 11 meetings. Ohio State leads the all-time series, 15-8.

UPSET ALERT: Northwestern has been Iowa’s Kryptonite, winning six of the last eight meetings. And the Hawkeyes are just 1-3 in the last four meetings with the Wildcats in Kinnick Stadium. Still, this is an Iowa team coming off two losses in a row that likely needs to win this game if it hopes to go to a bowl. And NU is desperate to get on track after losing three in a row following a 4-0 start. Another loss here could put the Wildcats in a funk they may not be able to pull themselves out of.

[ MORE: Who wins Week 9 Big Ten games? Pick your winners! ]

MUST WIN: The Northwestern at Iowa game actually is a must win for both teams. The Wildcats are in the midst of a free fall, losers of three in a row after a 4-0 start. NU faces a daunting schedule the rest of the way with games remaining at Nebraska, vs. Michigan, vs. Michigan State and at Illinois. Iowa has Wisconsin, at Purdue, Michigan and at Nebraska after this visit from Northwestern. See what I’m talking about?

QUARTERBACK MATCHUP TO WATCH: It won’t get much better than Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg vs. Ohio State’s Braxton Miller. Hackenberg has been one of the best true freshmen in the nation, a Wunderkind who has lived up to his massive advance billing. Miller is starting to round into form after missing almost three games with a knee injury suffered in the second game of the season. He’s coming off his best game of 2013 in a win vs. Iowa last week.

PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook will be under the microscope again after struggling vs. a poor Purdue squad last week. How bad did it get? Mark Dantonio fessed later that he considered switching quarterbacks. Cook hit just 13-of-25 passing for 107 yards last Saturday, misfiring on several throws to open receivers. It seemed like he had turned a corner. Now? Cook should benefit from a Spartan offense that figures to be able to run at will vs. a soft Illini defense, setting up some play-action pass opportunities. Michigan State has dominated the series of late, going 11-1 vs. Illinois in the last 12 meetings. The Illini’s last win vs. the Spartans in Champaign was in 1992.

[ MORE: Most impressive first-year Big Ten quarterback? ]

KEEP AN EYE ON: The Northwestern offense. The unit has hit the skids during a three-game losing skid that’s threatening to derail the season. In a 35-6 loss at Wisconsin, the Wildcats had just 241 yards (197 passing; 44 rushing) with no TDs. In a 20-17 loss to Minnesota, NU had 328 yards (234 passing; 94 rushing) with two TDs. The rushing game also failed to eclipse the 100-yard mark in a 40-30 loss to Ohio State that started this losing streak, finishing with 94 yards vs. the Buckeyes. Maybe the expected return of quarterback Kain Colter from an ankle injury will spark the NU attack. But running back Venric Mark is still out with his ankle injury. And the Northwestern’s o-line has struggled, as the Wildcats have allowed the most sacks of any Big Ten team (22).

BEST COACHING MATCHUP: Penn State’s Bill O’Brien vs. Ohio State’s Urban Meyer. It hasn’t taken O’Brien long to establish himself as one of the best in the business. He was at his best the last time out in guiding the Nittany Lions to a wild four-overtime win vs. Michigan, showing guts and play-calling savvy. There are few better offensive minds in the game. Meyer is one of the top coaches in the nation who quickly has re-established Ohio State as one of the top programs in the nation. If these two combatants stick around a while, this could turn into a nice rivalry.

COORDINATOR MATCHUP TO WATCH: It will be interesting to watch Illinois offensive coordinator Bill Cubit match Xs and Os with Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, the best in the Big Ten. The Illini have some skill-position talent that could pose some matchup issues for the talented Spartans defense. Keep an eye on the battle between the Fighting Illini receivers and the Spartan secondary. Still, if Illinois is unable to establish a running game that MSU must respect, the Illini offense may not get on track behind quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase.

[ MORE: Bowl Projections: Two Big Ten teams in BCS bowls? ]

RANKING THE OCT. 26 GAMES

1. Penn State at Ohio State

2. Northwestern at Iowa

3. Nebraska at Minnesota

4. Michigan State at Illinois

About Tom Dienhart BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

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4 Comments

Your Opinion?
Show Comments (4 Comments)
Tom Thompson on 10/24/2013 @ 2:38pm EST Said:

Oddly enough the Gophers still hold the edge in the series 29-22-2. They had a few bad decades….we had a few bad decades. Time for win #30.

misdreavus79 on 10/24/2013 @ 3:23pm EST Said:

“Ohio State leads the all-time series, 15-8.” False. Either use 14 – 8, or 15 – 13. Can’t have your cake and eat it too.

Mary Boda on 10/25/2013 @ 11:05am EST Said:

How does Ohio State keep getting these night games in Columbus?

SChawki on 10/25/2013 @ 11:34am EST Said:

I certainly can’t see calling the OSU vs PSU a marquee matchup. After watching the Michigan Penn St give away fest in 4 overtimes with neither team generating enough offense to put 7 on the board, I can’t understand the love. PSU will be lucky if they hang 14 points on the board while OSU will be approaching 50 at the buzzer. I think the game one should really watch out for is Minnesota and Nebraska. Everyone has Nebraska winning as a forgone conclusion, and I say not so fast. Mighigan St still not receiving the acholades it deserves with the number 1 defense in all the land with only one lose, but I agree Conner needs to play better than last week. He showed what he was capible of verses the Hawks. Cats and Hawks is really the tough game to gain clear vison on because I can’t tell if the media loved the Cats into position at the beginning of the year, or were they really a decent team now on a decend. Clearly too much media love for Michigan and Nebraska, and not enough for Sparty, and I am kind of beginning to believe in my Hawks. Wouldn’t surprise me if we see Buckeyes come out on top followed by Wiscy and Sparty both side by side for 2nd and 3rd, and the Hawks coming in at 4th in the final BIG power rankings.

Just my 2 cents